Opinion: Brown's miserable anniversary

Gordon Brown has a lot to ponder on his first anniversary as PM
Gordon Brown has a lot to ponder on his first anniversary as PM

The prime minister's first year in office has been truly horrific. It's that simple.

Gordon Brown came to office with the hand of history on his predecessor's shoulders. There was much relief at Tony Blair's exit and, among the Labour ranks, delight at the much-vaunted 'smooth transition'. Mr Brown had the best possible start. Failed terrorist attacks, flooding in July and fears of a foot-and-mouth outbreak proved just the ticket when it came to strong leadership. Mr Cameron, by contrast, was bogged down in a row over grammar schools and enduring a bad summer.

How ironic, therefore, that such a good start led to the nightmare that followed. The election that never was: a deeply regrettable failure to control the party apparatchiks, ending in a changed perception of the prime minister. Biting fingernails and indecision are never likely to be vote-winners.

In fact the tide had already started turning; David Cameron's decision to ditch the podium and entertain his party's faithful without the aid of notes was a real turning point. The significance of the conference season has been enhanced rather than diminished in hindsight. Labour was obsessed by the possibility of a snap election; the Conservatives, coming into September apparently divided, needed to "fight back". That was exactly what Mr Cameron did.

The prime minister, by contrast, slipped further and further into the mire. Northern Rock got worse and worse - the nationalisation, when finally completed, was hideously executed - and the government took a major hit on competence with the loss of 25 million people's data. A scandal over proxy donations to the party in November and December confirmed the slide.

All through this period Mr Brown struggled to define himself. His constant reappearances on political sofas, explaining his "moral compass", came across as rather desperate. You might argue, if you were desperate, that the situation improved somewhat in the first months of 2008. But then, oh dear, came the intervention of Frank Field, whose insistence that he was not a Labour rebel seemed as hard to believe as the depth of the prime minister's error. This, even in the catalogue of calamity which Mr Brown had carefully been building up since the previous autumn, seemed the nadir.

But no, alas - then things got worse. A humiliating series of electoral defeats prolonged the bad headlines and prompted anguished agonising from the Labour faithful. For the first time rumours of a leadership challenge began to emerge. And here we are now: in a very bad place, Labour fans. A very bad place indeed.

Was it always so? The honeymoon period suggested otherwise. Even many Conservatives were impressed with the prime minister's standing. Perhaps the most convincing indicator that the prime minister was going to lead Labour to a historic fourth term was his prudence; his carefulness, his conviction.

How strange, therefore, that he squandered all the gradually built up capital in such a short period of time. The man renowned for stability, for certainty - stripped naked in a haze of indecision. His carefully considered political calls, worked up over months of pondering - wrecked on the sea of serious misjudgment. Time for the "work of change" to begin, he said - and yet, a year on, there's a horrible feeling the government is not making clear what it wants to do to improve the country.

It's a sad, sad reflection on the changing opinion of the prime minister. One year ago, columnists talked of his clunking fists with something approaching real excitement. Now, as we have seen through countless PMQs, Mr Brown's wavering hand of uncertainty is a better summary. People are beginning to talk about his chances of longevity in the job. The quivering hand gesture might be best suited to that as well.

Alex Stevenson


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